Wednesday, January 14, 2009
How to Disappear Completely
Written by Invisible Man
Power tends to fear a vacuum. This is why Agamben asks in The Coming Community to expose “in every form one’s own amorphousness and in every act one’s own inactuality.” The guiding question of this formless form of life could therefore be posed as follows: How to disappear completely, or at least almost completely? I often tried, with little success, to make some practical sense of this question, until I read this passage from Kafka’s diary:
“Many years ago I sat one day, in a sad enough mood, on the slope of the Laurenziberg [a hill at the center of Prague]. I went over the wishes that I wanted to realize in life. I found that the most important or the most delightful was the wish to attain a view of life (and -- this was necessarily bound up with it -- to convince others of it in writing), in which life, while still retaining its full-bodied rise and fall, would simultaneously be recognized no less clearly as a nothing, a dream, a dim hovering. A beautiful wish, perhaps, if I had wished it rightly.”
Kafka’s readers are easy to embrace his celebrated worldview, with its intricate bureaucracy and nightmarish senselessness. They are much less receptive to the unique lifeview portrayed in his writings, which is lucidly defined in this diary entry as the tension between presence (life’s “full-bodied rise and fall”) and absence (“a nothing, a dream, a dim hovering”). Notice how all the characters in Kafka’s three novels have a specific task that they need to fulfill or a particular role that completely consumes their existence. Arendt refers to these characters as “jobholders,” before contrasting those “omnicompitenet” beings with the protagonists, the three K.s, who are the only exceptions to this rigid literary rule (Joseph K. from The Castle is a land surveyor by name but not by practice). Kafka’s unheroic hero remains hovering in his predicament, abandoned in his state of limbo, suspended in his whateverness. Though Arendt may be right that there is nothing extraordinary about such “man of good will” who “may be anybody and everybody,” this pariah is the unmistakable model for the new vision of life that first came to Kafka while he was sitting on the slopes of the Laurenziberg hill, like a Moses without a people on the Mount Sinai of our modern times.
What we are witnessing here could be seen as a blueprint for a distinctive form of life, but only as long as we realize that this “form is empty, and emptiness is form.” The notion of emptiness crystalized in this famous line from the Budhist Heart Sutra is one of those powerful ideas that proves why Western philosophy (and Agamben in particular) could be better off paying closer attention to its Eastern ally. The Tao Te Ching, attributed to Laozi, formulates this idea in one of its earliest forms:
“Thirty spokes are united in one hub. It is in its emptiness, where the usefulness of the cart is. Clay is heated and a pot is made. It is in its emptiness, where the usefulness of the pot is. Doors and windows are chiseled out. It is in its emptiness, where the usefulness of a room is. Thus, there is presence for the benefit, there is non-presence for the use.”
Laozi distinguishes here presence from absence by saying that the former is beneficial (in actuality) while the latter is useful (in potentiality). For example, the benefit of a cup is that one may drink tea from it. But the cup cannot be useful unless it is empty. Notice that the usefulness of what is not, in opposition to the benefit of what is, can never be exhausted. The doorknob may be broken because of misuse or overuse, but the threshold through which you pass every day will never be worn out. This is true not only about objects but also about persons. Emptiness can inform a potentially powerful and inexhaustible way of life, which is the life, if you like, of Agamben’s “man without content.” Zhuangzi, Laozi’s successor, clarifies this idea through a simple parable: Imagine that you cross a calm river by boat, when suddenly an empty boat happens to bump into yours. Even if you have hot and quick temper, Zhuangzi reasons, you will not get angry at the empty boat. But if there was a man in the other boat, you will surely shout at him. Emptiness, in opposition to fullness, is therefore a prime strategy of a life that can evade the scrutiny of power: “If man could succeed in making himself empty, and in that way wander through the world, then who could do him harm?”
Inconspicuousness and even blandness are basic virtues that may enable a person to achieve a state of emptiness. In order to see this point we do not need to consult the texts of ancient Chinese masters. All that it takes is to glance at a few passages written by two modern masters from Paris, France. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari call “becoming-imperceptible” the way by which somebody can “be like everybody else.” In opposition to the usual laments about conformism, they claim that not everybody can become everybody, since “to go unnoticed is by no means easy. To be a stranger, even to one’s doorman or neighbors,” to “blend in with the walls,” requires a certain “asceticism,” “sobriety,” and “elegance.” Deleuze, by the way, was a dedicated practitioner of this method: his most remarkable (one might say eccentric) philosophical thought never deterred him from living the most unremarkable (one might say boring) everyday life -- a fact that certainly pains his prospective biographers. Today, the mundane became one of our greatest fears. What we fail to realize is that to live a resolutely mundane life simply means to achieve a truly worldly being (from the Latin mundus) rather than a heavenly being, to embrace the profane order rather than the sacred order.